Probably everyone knows the famous Trinity Icon of Rublev. It’s based on the story from Genesis we had in our first reading today. Andrei Rublev was a Russian monk who lived in the late 14th/early 15th c. His Icon shows the 3 Angels of Mamre sitting lovingly around a table. Because in the text the mysterious visitors of Abraham are described as now three, now only one, many of the Fathers of the Church took them to be an image or foreshadowing of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. You can’t possibly represent the Persons of the Trinity in a picture, but you can represent Angels, so Rublev did that, followed of course by many later imitators.
At first in the story Abraham appears merely to be an exemplary Eastern gentleman, who offers extraordinary courtesy and hospitality to three passing strangers, even above and beyond the call of duty. But it soon becomes clear that in some mysterious way Abraham has actually somehow given hospitality to Angels, or even to the Lord God of heaven and earth. The result of that is that God blesses him, promising him a son, beyond all hope or expectation. The promise is not just for a son either, but for a race stemming from his son.
And that line or race or offspring will culminate in the fullness of time with the gift of God’s own Son, the Messiah. So the story of the Bible is the story of how God’s blessing of Abraham passes down through the other Patriarchs and then through all the generations. This blessing will be the source of the blessing inherited by the People of Israel, children of Abraham, and then by the Christian Church, heirs of Abraham through faith, and children of God in Jesus Christ.
We have this reading today deliberately as an implicit commentary on the little domestic scene recounted by St. Luke in today’s Gospel, when Martha and Mary offer hospitality to Jesus.
There is so much in these few verses! We can certainly start by reading them simply at face value. They record an incident during the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, in which he urges a busy and anxious person to calm down, stop worrying, let be for a moment, and join her sister doing apparently nothing, in a way that actually gives him more honour as their invited guest. That would be a natural wisdom that any sensible person might offer, and doubtless many of us could benefit from hearing it every now and then. We live in an activist age in which more or less everyone seems to be stressed out, or feels guilty if they’re not!
But Jesus didn’t come just to give us some pieces of homely wisdom, and good common sense advice. He came to give us himself, and with that gift to draw us to share his own divine life. Reading the story in faith, then, we take it not just as a historical event but also as a parable. As such it illustrates how God in Jesus Christ allowed himself to receive ordinary hospitality; to relax in the company of his friends; to give his divine teaching not just in the Temple or Synagogue or before great crowds on the mountain or at the lake side, but also in an intimate family circle.
To apply that to ourselves: Jesus comes also to me, in my own place. He speaks to me personally, and he listens to what I say to him. For my own part, I have to learn the art of listening to him – not only as he speaks through scripture or the Church, but also as he speaks within the silence of my own heart and conscience. I have to learn how to be content just to be in his presence; to spend time simply receiving from him whatever he wants to give me. That’s the art of prayer, of the contemplative life. It will be our occupation in eternity, and we should start to learn it now.
In the context of St. Luke’s Gospel, this incident immediately follows on from the parable of the Good Samaritan. There our duty to love our neighbour was strongly and wonderfully taught. Go and do likewise said Jesus to the Lawyer. That’s the second commandment of the law, and we have a grave obligation to fulfil it. But the first commandment is even more important, and that’s to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. And we do that by listening to Jesus, being with him, sitting at his feet, receiving whatever he wishes to give us.
Of course the two commandments are not opposed or in any way mutually exclusive. We could say that Martha represents in a sense the 2nd commandment, and Mary the 1st. And Mary is praised more than Martha, because what she is doing is more important, and takes priority. In the presence of Jesus she seems to fulfil the teaching of the Psalm, Be still and know that I am God (46:10). To do that is actually the first and most pressing duty of our lives. Certainly then there are times when we should put all other things whatever aside in order to devote ourselves to it exclusively.
Was Martha rebuked for being much occupied with serving? The story gives sufficient hints for us to deduce that really not all Martha was doing was strictly necessary. She had to serve, yes, but it seems that her serving also manifested a symptom of rather obsessive fussiness. Her self-imposed acts of virtue resulted in her being filled with resentment against her sister. Worse, she was so blinded by self righteousness and resentment that she landed up being actually quite rude to Jesus. Lord do you not care? That’s a rebuke! Tell her! That’s an impatient command, with the implication that he has been neglecting his duty and needs to be reminded to do it! But Mary is defended, because she chose the better part, not out of laziness, but because her love was greater.
With Mary, we now come into the Lord’s presence. We have heard his word in the Holy Scriptures. In a few moments he will be present on our Altar, no less than he was present in that house in Bethany 2000 years ago. So we come to him with open hearts; asking him to enable us truly to hear his word, to rejoice in his presence, and to give him all our love: in order that the gifts he gives us now may ind